Rights, not Charity: It is Time to Put Food Banks out of Business

CBC Food Bank Day returns on December 1, uplifting the role of food banks in addressing food insecurity despite vocal calls by many organizations (including foodbanks themselves) and citizens for the government to address the upstream causes of food insecurity, namely the need for meaningful income policy change that puts more money in people’s pockets rather than them lining up for food charity. 

Millions are fundraised for local foodbanks each CBC Food Bank Day (almost $3 million last year) while the number of foodbank users continues to climb. Why is it that with full acknowledgement that the food charity and food banking model is a failure, our public broadcasting media continue to support this failed food system as anything close to an appropriate response to food insecurity? 

Supporting the ongoing role of the food banking model further undermines the meaningful efforts by many organizations who are working to fulfill the human right to adequate, healthy food no matter one’s life situation. We will never “foodbank” our way out of hunger. 

The Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks (VNFNs) are a coalition of 15 neighbourhood-based
food programs whose work spans the food security continuum from emergency food provision to policy advocacy and system change, and are calling on the CBC to end its support for this broken food system. “We are not saying that we abandon our support for community members in need of emergency food, but we need to begin to shift the charity narrative as well as shift resources, including fundraising programs, to policy efforts working to end food banking forever,” says Ian Marcuse, VNFN Co-ordinator. 

Canada is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both explicitly speak to rights that derive from the inherent dignity of the human person, including “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.” Article 11, ICESCR 

While the language and tone of these agreements signify that Canada has agreed to work within an international human rights framework and has an obligation to take steps to fulfil such rights, Canada has yet to enshrine the right to food legislation or legal mechanisms for enforcement. The interpretation of food rights and obligations is unclear, while at the same time, the breakdown of our social safety net over the past several decades has exacerbated food insecurity. Foodbanks simply do not meet the standard of a food rights-based system that we advocate for. 

The VNFNs are calling on an end to publicly funded food banks along with much stronger efforts to adequately address the root causes of food insecurity by our governments, namely ensuring that all citizens have a minimum income floor to meet their food needs on their own terms with full dignity.